Bourbon rides wave of Southern culture, women and craft drinkers
Greg and Debra Jackson of Birmingham, Ala., claimed a spot at the end of Husk’s bar last week, enjoying a two-day visit to Charleston as part of a Southern vacation swing.
By federal law, bourbon made in the United States must be:
Made with minimum 51 percent corn, mixed with barley and rye or wheat, or both.
Aged in new, charred-oak barrels.
Distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80 percent alcohol; and entered into the barrel at no more than 125 proof.
Bottled at 80 proof or greater (40 percent alcohol).
Bourbon may be made anywhere in the U.S., but the vast majority is made in Kentucky.
What is small-batch bourbon?
Made from mixing the contents of a small number of selected barrels, it is usually aged six to nine years although sometimes more.
What is single-barrel or single-cask bourbon?
Denotes a premium class of whiskey, with each bottle coming from an individual aging barrel.
Despite all the national foodie hype about Husk, what brought them to Queen Street was not the restaurant’s crispy pig ears or fried catfish BLT. It was an article about the Holy City in Bourbon Review. And the couple are just the type the bourbon industry wants to welcome into its fold.
Two to try
We asked two Charleston beverage experts: If you had to recommend only one bourbon to try now, what would it be?
Patrick Emerson of Maverick Southern Kitchens: Angel’s Envy. “Old port casks give it a real richness and depth.”
Dan Latimer, general manager, Husk: Michter’s Small Batch Bourbon. “For affordability, accessibility and drinkability.”
The Jacksons represent consumers who have been revving up the bourbon market since the 1990s and that shows no signs of letting up in the 21st century. Some have dubbed it a bourbon “renaissance” as yearly sales have climbed toward the $4 billion mark.
Banish the image of bourbon as a mature man’s cocktail mixed with ginger ale or cola. Today’s drinkers are just as likely to be women, 20- and 30-somethings exploring crafty new cocktails, or those who get their kicks sipping an ultra-premium small-batch bourbon.
Husk beckons with a huge selection on its bar menu, maybe the most in the area, of 51 bourbons at last count. A few top $25 per drink.
“I love whiskeys,” says Greg Jackson, describing his collection as “modest.”
“I enjoy playing with them. It’s almost a hobby, ... a very pleasing hobby,” he allows with a smile.
Jackson’s interest began in the 1980s with the debut of single-malt scotches, followed by single-barrel bourbons. He took the bourbon path.
“We’ve been slowly learning about it over the past 15 years,” he says.
The higher cost of premium bourbons doesn’t intimidate him, either. He’ll go a few hundred dollars a bottle for something really special.
Jackson reasons that whiskey, as opposed to an opened bottle of wine, provides “sipping pleasure for quite a long time. ... It makes it less painful to spend money on it.”
As for Debra Jackson, she says bourbon is her favorite spirit, too.
Bring on the South
Husk General Manager Dan Latimer sees several things increasing the thirst for bourbon and expanding the number of labels.
“We’ve seen a resurgence of interest in Southern culture on the whole, and with that comes bourbon.”
Also, as makers of high-quality bourbons toyed with different grains and ratios, and lengthened the aging times to eight, nine or 10 years, “a lot of those are coming to the market now,” Latimer says.
For example, Buffalo Trace this year released its oat and rice “Experimental Collection” bourbons priced at close to $50 a bottle.
“Every time I turn around, I see another one released,” he says of whiskeys, including bourbon, rye, white and American.
The age span of bourbon drinkers also is broadening to younger people who are tuned in to the artisan aspect of modern-day bourbons, Latimer says.
“You’re seeing a lot more people appreciating the nuances. The public’s palate is more sophisticated than in the past.”
Sipping-type bourbons are more “savored than consumed,” he notes. At the same time, there’s been a surge in new whiskey cocktails that respect the bourbon’s flavor profile while still being a mixed drink.
Patrick Emerson, beverage director for the Maverick Southern Kitchens group whose flagship is Slightly North of Broad, agrees that the popularity of Southern culture is driving the bourbon boom.
“All things Southern are fashionable from the Southeast throughout the nation,” he says. “It’s a firestorm of interest.”
He has expanded Maverick’s offerings of small-batch bourbons to meet the demand. “Just last week, I put two new ones on at SNOB that I really like.”
Maverick also has its own line of six different spirits, including bourbon, that was developed by North Charleston-based spirits producer Terressentia.
The bourbon is “certainly the one we get the raves about,” Emerson says.
Terressentia made six different batches before hitting the flavor notes he was after and the right balance between taste and alcohol: “warming but not overt,” he says.
While Maverick’s restaurants (SNOB, High Cotton and Old Village Post House) cannot sell bottles, he says they are available at Bottles in Mount Pleasant and Burris Liquor store downtown.
Emerson also is seeing a female demographic emerging in bourbon land.
“It’s not surprising to find a young lady sipping on a bourbon at the bar. That’s a dramatic change from the past.”
Last month, Maverick staged an all-female fundraising event where vodka-, rum- and bourbon-based cocktails were offered.
“The Old-Fashioned (bourbon) was by far the most popular,” he says.